this bird, little
bomb, pretty bomb
blinking lights -
singing firecracker firecracker
tick tick boom,
'Wisdom of God Manisfested in the Works of His Creation', p.24
Shearsman Books, 2015.
In The Origin of Species, Darwin states that "in the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed". No where is that better expressed that in Aubrie Marrin's beautiful, mesmerizing Incognitum where sloths wander hospital gardens, where the voices of dead explorers and naturalists return us from their discoveries and fascinations with creatures we killed, stuffed and preserved in arsenic. American poet Cynthia Cruz describes the book as 'a cabinet of curiosities', an very apt way of describing the tender and intimate love for the creatures who stalk through the collection.
As I child, my family and I often frequented the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, London. I remember walking through the corridor of glass cabinets filled with 'Mammals with Pouches' and 'Distant Relatives?', displaying types of bear, pandas and raccoons, often taken away for cleaning so that mites didn't devour the fur. Marrin's poetry took me back to that wild eyed wonder of being a child, trying to figure out whether the animals were still living and being eerily okay pointing out the wings and heads of birds, removed from their bodies and surrounded with paragraphs. Poems like 'Still Life' (40), which describes the preserving and eventual museum-conditioning of a cormorant's body, contains this scientific pathological tendency to think in process rather than origin. For example, the lines "if the weather be warm, / be pleased to order Bowels / to be taken out and some Pepper / put into the Body, but no salt / which would spoil the feathers" were taken from Charles Wilson Peale's instructions to George Washington on how he should send the naturalist his dead pheasants, reminding the reader of the clinical side of preserving dead animals. However, Marrin adds duality in this poem by including another voice that intersperses with that of the naturalists: the ghost of the dead cormorant. Speaking in the first person, the dead bird describes how the naturalists will "take this spoon to my skull / with pathological fidelity. / I won't be the same shape, / I will lose my eyes". This reminds the reader of the life of the bird, something we are all too soon to forget and neglect once the bullet is fired or the neck slit. They become an object without origin, save for the clinical tag next beneath the glass.
The central concerns of Incognitum are mortality and frailty, specifically of life and how quickly it sinks into "the wormhole geologic / and volatile" (Dinosaur Heart, 59). In these poems we are taken back to the prehistoric subterranean past as well as the vanishing present, where "the prehistoric anteater / walks the hospital grounds" (The Anatomy of Melancholy,19) and the "bare hills saddled with / houses, hives / of development and the scourge / of bulldozed ground" (Half-Life,13). There is an underlying message in many of these poems of the fragility of life, not only those of prehistoric creatures who died via Mass Extinction, but those that humankind have killed. Marrin lists the implements of death in poems such as "Still Life (40), "Calenture" (42) and "A Naturalist in a Cannibal Land, 1903" (44) - notice they sit next to each other to aid in the hammering home of this point - where naturalists "carry killing-bottles / with cyanide potassium" (44), reminding us of the tools we use in the trade of killing.
Many of Marrin's poems borrow lines from the journals or letters of naturalists, biologists or museum instructions, drawing us into the territory of found poetry. I find this quite intriguing as early on in "The Anatomy of Melancholy", Marrin notes how "everything's repeated" (19), and while I do not necessarily believe this poignant fact was taken into account for her own borrowings, I enjoy the idea that even in her poetry there is a law of recycling/repurposing/repetitiveness that is so apparent in nature. In her Notes at the back, she admits to using lines from the likes of A.S. Meek, George Cuvier, Charles Dickens and Maria Sibylla Merian, illustrating our personal history with nature as well as our wonder and cruelty. The fossils of our ancestor naturalists and preservers sit alongside the Mastodon and Archaeopteryx fossils discovered within the mud and rock.
There collection ends with "Ode", a reminder of our own frailty and temporary existence, a reminder that we too can be pulled out of lakes and rock. A couple are pulled from a local pond "blue lips, blue heels, their arms / flailing now, their ankles / breaking free" (69). A chilling conclusion comes in the end of the "Ode":
you sunned on those rocks,
chalked your name on those rocks,
even when the sky
turned against you.
The Hudson Valley, draped
The houses come at you
from all sides.
Where do you think
To me this speaks of humanity's desperation to claim the land in chalking our names on rocks, which are quickly washed away by the power of nature (in this analogy, it is rain that washes the chalk away). For someone who isn't familiar with American landscapes, I googled The Hudson Valley. It is a beautiful wide river that stretches all the way from the New York coast to Albany. It is also Marrin's home town, which accounts for her "Postcards from Millbrook" series (I-III) that appear throughout the collection, exploring her thoughts and notions about the landscape around her. Marrin describing it as a 'discarded scar' suggests that we disregard the dangers nature holds, we pay it no heed to the 'scars' that run deep in the land. The following two lines suggest we are surrounded by our houses, caged by them, and the closing lines suggest we cannot escape them, we cannot escape the same fate as the prehistoric animals - as well as present animals - whose ghosts and corpses have talked to the reader throughout the book. This theme is visited a little earlier in "Numbers" (46), where the lines "partially digested / human jaw bone / pulled from the stomach / of an alligator" and how "everything just dies / in my hands" (47) suggest we can not only keep nature alive in our corrupt hands, but also we are just as much in danger from predators as they are from us. Humans beware, we are neither as nurturing or as safe as we like to believe.
There are many more things I could say about this book, but then I fear for spilling all the contents and dissuading people from buying such beautiful collections! Marrin has truly created a museum of natural antiquities and very present fears, looking out at us with wild glassy eyes that both fear us and fear for us.
Please consider supporting Marrin in her struggle with Lyme Disease and Spinal Surgery - here - and aid in the recovery of this wonderful young poet.